About: Ilona Bray

Ilona Bray is a former attorney and the author of several Nolo immigration books. Her working background includes both solo immigration practice and working or volunteering as an immigration attorney with nonprofit organizations in Seattle and California.

Recent Posts by Ilona Bray

Yes, Even Charitable Organizations Must Abide By U.S. Trademark Law

pillowfightPlanning a fun theme for a special charity event is an opportunity to exercise one’s creativity, attract a new audience, and . . . receive future nasty letters from lawyers.

Just ask Newmindspace, a Toronto-based nonprofit dedicated to organizing free, fun, all-ages events in places like subway cars and city streets. The organization had to change the theme of its popular lightsaber battles to the “Cats in Space Tour” after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the attorneys at Lucasfilm (owner of the Star Wars brand).

At least the nonprofit seems to have come to an agreement without going to court or suffering direct financial losses (other than the costs of hiring its own lawyers and rebranding). A worse fate appears to have been a possibility: Newmindspace co-founder Kevin Bracken reportedly said that, after receiving the letter, the threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit kept him up at night.

Still, it’s a cautionary tale for any nonprofit. How do you make sure not to step on any toes?

First, understand that simply being a nonprofit is not a defense. It might help in certain situations (particularly if you’re such small potatoes that it’s not worth the larger entity’s time to go after you), but you can’t count on that. In fact, giant, unfeeling corporations aren’t even the only ones to go after trademark violators: Remember the reports of the Susan G. Komen foundation sending its lawyers after smaller charities that try to use the phrase “For the cure?”

Fortunately, simply developing some awareness of the existence of trademark and copyright laws, and how they work, will go a long way toward protecting your nonprofit from missteps.

Briefly summarized, trademark infringement occurs when someone uses the trademark or service mark of another when selling competing or related goods and services; particularly if the use might cause confusion for the average consumer. (See Nolo’s articles on Is It Trademark Infringement? for more on this.) If you’re hoping to piggyback on the success of a theme, character, or design that someone else came up with an is actively using, better think twice.

Relatedly, a copyright violation occurs when someone reproduces, distributes, adapts, or performs a work (art, literature, theatre, music, and so on) whose creator still owns the rights to it. As Nolo author Rich Stim explains, “Some people incorrectly believe that if the purpose of the infringement is not for profit, there is no infringement. For example, if a nonprofit charity uses a copyrighted character in its donation drive and mailings, the charity may be liable for infringement.”

Thankfully for Newmindspace, no one seems to have claimed trademark protection for its most popular event: International Pillow Fight Day.

Wonder How Much This U.S. Citizen Would Have Been Awarded If He’d Been Deported, Not Just Detained?

American flag background - shot and lit in studio

Jhon Erik Ocampo, a U.S. citizen, was recently awarded $20,000 in damages to compensate him for his 2012 arrest by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and subsequent seven-day detention. Yes, he attempted to explain to the ICE officers who arrested him that he was a U.S. citizen–but he couldn’t show proof.

This lack of proof is a common situation for people who “derive” U.S. citizenship. That’s a legal term meaning that, although the person him- or herself was not born in the U.S., a U.S. citizen parent was a citizen or became a naturalized citizen while the child held a green card and lived in the U.S., so that the child became a citizen automatically, by operation of law. (See Nolo’s articles on Acquiring or Deriving Citizenship Through Parents; the exact rules vary depending on the year in which the child was born.)

One way to obtain such proof is to apply for a U.S. passport; but the State Department isn’t always attentive to the rules of derivation, and may deny it.

Another way is to apply to USCIS using Form N-600, Application for Certificate of Citizenship (available from the Forms page of the USCIS website). Mr. Ocampo apparently sent in this form multiple times, with no results. (Normal USCIS processing times for Forms N-600 are several months, but it’s an application that often slips to the bottom of USCIS’s priority list.)

So, for lack of proof, Mr. Ocampo endured a week in custody, and was shuttled between two county jails in Illinois before finally someone at ICE took a closer look at his records, confirmed his U.S. citizenship, and let him go.

Is $20,000 enough to compensate for the loss of a week out of Mr. Ocampo’s life, not to mention the fear that no one would confirm his citizenship and he might be sent out of the country that had been his rightful home for years?

Impossible to say–though there may be some basis for comparison, because ICE has made similar mistakes in literally thousands of cases over the years, according to a 2011 Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law study conducted by Jacqueline Stevens, professor of political science at Northwestern University.

Let’s just say that Ocampo would likely have been awarded much more if he’d been among the many documented cases where ICE failed to discover its mistake until after having deported the person. (If deported is the right word at all. You can’t legally “deport” a U.S. citizen; commentators have suggested “kidnapped” or “banished.”)

Take the case of Andres Robles Gonzalez, also a U.S. citizen by virtue of derivation. He was reportedly arrested for allegedly violating U.S. immigration laws. ICE ignored his assertions that he was a U.S. citizen, and placed him in deportation proceedings, after which it removed him to Mexico, in December 2008. He wasn’t allowed back into the U.S. until 2011. His damage award? $350,000.

Then there’s Mark Lyttle, who was born in North Carolina, didn’t speak any Spanish, and yet was deported to Mexico. It took him approximately a year to find a sympathetic consular officer to help him make contact with his family (who had thought he might be dead). He received $175,000.

I wish I could find out what, if any damage award was made to Mario Guerrero Cruz. Born a U.S. citizen, he was mistakenly deported in 1995. When he tried to reenter the U.S., he was reportedly arrested and then convicted of illegal reentry and impersonating a U.S. citizen, and sentenced to over seven years in federal prison.

One thing is clear, however. U.S. authorities could save a lot of money if they’d stop pursuing people who never should have been in immigration custody in the first place–and then have to pay them for their trouble later.

Beware the Downside Risks of Tidying Up Your Finances in Preparation for Getting a Mortgage Loan

city illusIf you’re hoping to buy a home and finance it with a mortgage (as do 86% of homebuyers, according to the National Association of Realtors’ 2015 Profile of Buyers and Sellers), getting your finances in order is a good start. You’ll want to understand how much debt, income, and assets you really have, pay off minor debts at high interest that might be harming your ability to take on more credit, and be able to show that you’re a good risk for the hefty loan you’re about to apply for.

But don’t go too far! You can, according to mortgage banker Ken McCoy of Petaluma Home Loans, actually oversimplify your finances to the point that it hurts your credit rating and your ability to qualify for a mortgage at the lowest interest rate and on the most advantageous terms.

Let’s start with your job. If the pay isn’t great, you might be inclined to look for something better before buying a home. But, warns McCoy, “Changing your job can be a bad thing if it’s in a different line of work. The lender wants to see at least two years’ history in the same occupation, basically as a sign that you’re going to stay in that job for the long haul.”

Next, there’s the matter of your assets. Like many people, you may have a checking account at one bank, a savings account at another, and a CD somewhere else. Consolidation would certainly make it easier to know what you’ve got; but, says Ken, “You’ll be creating more, not less paperwork. Lenders want to be able to trace where all the money you’re using to buy a home came from, and you’ll end up having to supply statements from the accounts you closed, just to show the paper trail.”

Finally, there’s the all-important matter of your existing debt, including credit cards. McCoy says, “Prospective homebuyers tend to think about paying off their credit cards or getting rid of debt altogether. But realize that you may qualify for a mortgage with some existing debt; and if you pay it all off, you’ve just taken valuable money you needed for the home purchase transaction. What’s more, you can actually hurt your credit score by having no existing credit, or by closing credit cards you’ve had for years.”

Of course, nothing is cut and dried in this arena. There are certainly circumstances in which, for instance, taking a new job that pays much more would make sense. But how are you to know for sure? “Six months before you want to start looking for a home, sitting down with a mortgage professional would be smart,” says McCoy. And for more tips, check out the Affording a House section of Nolo’s website.

Widespread Outrage Over Suggestion That Children Represent Self in Immigration Court

bordermapCount me in as another voice within the chorus of shocked responses to senior immigration court judge Jack. H. Weil, who said during a deposition that three- and four-year olds can learn immigration law well enough to represent themselves in court.

This wasn’t just a casual comment; Judge Weil was addressing the issue of whether children facing deportation are entitled to attorneys at taxpayer expense. And let’s not forget that he trains other immigration judges nationwide, many of whom are hearing cases of immigrant children by the thousands.

Here are Weil’s words, as reported by the Washington Post: “I’ve taught immigration law literally to 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds . . . You can do a fair hearing. It’s going to take you a lot of time.”

Darn right it’s going to take a lot of time. More time than immigration judges have these days, from all I’ve heard about their backlogged and overcrowded court dockets. And that’s not all it’s going to take.

How does one even begin to explain the reasons? Plenty of people have expressed doubt over Weil’s assertions, from experts like Laurence Steinberg, psychology professor at Temple University, who told the Washington Post, “I nearly fell off my chair when I read that deposition” to Harry Shearer, as part of his political commentary on the March 6 version of “Le Show.” (Even my mother called me after reading the headlines!)

The first thing to bear in mind is that the United States has, under international and national law, an obligation to treat refugees differently (i.e. better) than other immigrants. And make no mistake, these children are mostly refugees, or people afraid to return to their home countries due to past persecution or the possibility of future persecution.

According to an American Immigration Council Report by Elizabeth Kennedy, NO CHILDHOOD HERE: Why central american children are fleeing their homes, non-economic factors such as organized crime, gang threats, and violence appear to be the strongest determinants for children’s decision to emigrate. Many try moving within their home countries first, and flee to the United States only as a last resort. They’re afraid.

video prepared for the Center for American Progress by Tom Jawetz, Philip E. WolginAndrew Satter, and Kulsum Ebrahim called “Why We Must Protect Central American Mothers and Children Fleeing Violence” points out that, as potential refugees, the Central American migrant children and families are legally entitled to due process. Yet they are receiving the very opposite: in many cases, a quick trip out the door.

The next key point is that asylum law is not only complicated, but fact-based and ever-evolving. I’ve represented many applicants in court whose cases seemed marginal at first.  It was only after spending hours (often over the course of many meetings) that I was able to understand the true basis of their fear of returning home and then analyze whether that fit into a ground for U.S. asylum.

Sometimes the answer was no. A child who, for example, is simply afraid of random street violence, is going to have trouble proving that he or she would be singled out for persecution. (See Asylum or Refugee Status: Who Is Eligible?)

But what if that child is a boy who is particularly effeminate, and who is commonly picked on by anti-gay gangs who are beyond the government’s control?  That could be a ground of asylum.  But do we really expect a small child to understand that distinction? Or to admit, in front of a judge and an attorney for the U.S. government, that people make fun of him for possibly being gay?

I doubt it. And that’s just one of many possible fact patterns. Every case is unique, just as every child is unique, and deserves to be heard individually rather than pushed through an overloaded system.

Buyer Desperation a Major Factor in Current Real Estate Market

buying-home-selling-your-houseI recently asked a Bay Area real estate agent about trends she’s observing in the current market. The first thing out of her mouth was the new need for her to understand buyer psychology as they learn the consequences of low housing inventory (fewer homes on the market than interested buyers).

No longer is it a simple matter of buyers figuring out how much money they have saved up and how much house they can thereby afford, doing a bit of shopping, and then closing on a home. Buyers must now often go through stages, an evolution driven by desperation as the weeks or months of shopping go on, and by experiencing flat-out “No” answers in response to their purchase offers.

The prospective homebuyer may start out telling the real estate agent, “I want a two-bedroom in this neighborhood and won’t pay a penny more than $X,” move on to saying, “Hmm, maybe we’d better bid higher given all the competition for this one-bedroom in a marginal neighborhood,” and end up at “Never mind the home inspection! Let’s double the asking price! We can’t wait any longer, we have to have that (tiny) house!”

This isn’t just a Bay Area phenomenon, either. The December projection from the National Association of Realtors says it all “Alas, Inventory Shortages Likely to Stay in 2016.” Relief isn’t reportedly in sight until the end of 2017, when Capital Economics researchers predict an inventory rise of around 50%.

According to economists at Zillow, this is even having an impact on the best time to sell a home. Zillow recently found that, nationally, homes that are put on the market in late spring (May 1 through May 15), sell around 18.5 days faster and for 1% more than the average listing. The explanation?

“The housing market today is heavily influenced by low inventory,” says Zillow chief economist Dr. Svenja Gudell. “Faced with increasingly competitive markets, many buyers are forced to consider several homes and make multiple offers, elongating the home shopping experience.”

That’s good news if you are a home seller just starting to think about putting your home on the market for this spring! Not only has time not yet run out, but you might be just in time to pick up on the desperate buyers who’ve been out there for weeks and who just want a home, at any price.

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